Monday, 25 May 2015

how i live a thrifty, debt-free lifestyle

I'm sensible with money and I like to think I live a relatively thrifty lifestyle. This hasn't always been the case; indeed, its my battles with debt that forced me into a thrifty lifestyle in the first place, although I'm grateful now to have cleared my debts which means its now a lifestyle choice rather than a neccesity.

Now, I don't look flash by any means, but I also don't think I come across as overly thrifty. I have nice stuff. I go on holidays. I own a relatively new car.I get salon hair cuts. I eat out.

But to me, the point is this - it isn't about going without. Yes, I went without when I had debts to clear, but now I want a nice life and I want to enjoy it, both by having nice things/doing fun things and by knowing I have the finances there to pay for them. I'm lucky in that I currently have a secure job with a decent wage and I'm debt free except for a small mortgage. I've worked hard to get here and I know clearing debt is not easy, so I never want to be there again. I've stuck to the principles I learned when I was on my debt-free journey, and I think they're helpful to anyone regardless of whether you're in debt or if you simply want to live a more thrifty lifestyle.

Budget, Budget, Budget
Every penny I spend is accounted for. I have a spreadsheet where I enter my monthly pay and divide it up accordingly. I pay bills and savings accounts first, then sent myself weekly budgets with the rest. And I stick to them. I meal plan weekly, which helps keep my grocery spending under control. Every item I buy is entered into a relevant column so that the end of the year I can see where my money is gone and set targets for the following year.

Sticking to budget takes a while to get used to. But anyone can do it, its simply a mental muscle that needs to be exercised.

Only buy what you can afford
I bought a car in March, 10 reg plate, paid in full by cash. I'm not saying this to show off - it took me six years of saving to get to this stage (plus a small part exchange for my old car). As soon as I bought my last car, I stared saving for the next one, and I'm now doing the same again. But if I couldn't afford it, I wouldn't have bought it. Same with holidays - I have a separate 'holiday' account, and only when it has enough money, do I allow myself to book a holiday. The only item I own that isn't paid for outright is my house. If I don't have the cash for something, I shouldn't be buying it.

This isn't practical for everyone. I get it. Sometimes, needs must - I've been there. But there's a big difference between what you 'need' and what you 'want'. Something in the latter category should never be on credit - that in itself is a good rule to determine what you buy and how you pay for it.

Have an 'emergencies' account
It took me years to get this account properly up and running but now I have it, at least I know its there. I wouldn't worry about setting this up if you're in debt though - get the debts cleared first - but its definitely something all debt-free folk should have. It was an absolute Godsend when Adam was in hospital and I needed to pay for my accommodation etc in Aberdeen, and also when my boiler broke and I had an excess to pay.

Buy quality
Especially when it comes to new items. I shop second hand a lot, but if I'm buying something new, I want quality because I want it to last. Pans that won't burn my hands when I touch the handles. Winter boots that will see me through a good few winters. T shirts that won't go out of shape on the first wash. A vacuum cleaner that picks up everything. More expensive in the short term? Probably. Cheaper in the long run? Definitely.

Shop around
I must admit, I hate shopping around. I want to buy something when I see it, not faff about, so I do need to force myself with this one. I always check a couple of stores/sites for purchases, and also whether it would work out cheaper to get it through a cashback website.

Be as eco-friendly as possible
Not always easy but being eco-friendly is a huge deal to me, so I do try and spend my money in the most ethical manner I can. This mostly involves avoiding stores that are known to have non-ethical work practices, and also using eco-friendly products. I also try to avoid anything tested on animals. It can be hard because often the cheapest stuff is the least eco-friendly, but making your own cleaning products can be ridiculously cheap and very easy - I managed this when I was in debt so its definitely doable. There's so much politics involved in this that its hard to know the right thing to do, but I try to do what I feel is right.

Make or grow if possible
As above, I make my own cleaning spray with water, washing up liquid and vinegar. I make my own compotes, granola, oatcakes, dips, salad dressings, biscuits, stock, soup and smoothies. I grow my own lettuce and herbs. I knit and crochet, mostly with second hand/on sale yarn. You don't have to do a whole host of things yourself - just a couple will be enough to save a bit of cash and boost your well being. There are so many more things I want to learn to do - making your own stuff, regardless of what it is, is very satisfying.

I believe that being tight with your money goes against what thriftiness is about. I believe money is an energy not a commodity, and if you let it flow, you'll have more confidence that more will flow back to you, so inevitably this is what happens. Where gifts are concerned, I try to buy people something they'll definitely want/use, even if it means spending a bit more. As for charities, I'll sponsor anyone that asks, but I recommend picking one that means something to you, and focusing on donating to it -  I donate regularly to Hillside Animal Sanctuary. That's not to say I don't give to others, but if I ever get a windfall, this charity receives a small portion, and I always respond to their appeals. I also free up some of my savings by lending through Kiva.

Avoid waste
Hence why I prefer to give people gifts they'll actually want, and why I buy quality items. We live in such a wasteful society, and working in the waste industry, I'm acutely aware of the type and volume of things that are thrown away every day. Its not just about being thrifty with money, its about being thrifty with resources and our planet aswell. Its about reusing what we can and look for inventive ways of creating new from old.

Do you see yourself as thrifty? What does thriftiness mean to you? Any tips to add?

Friday, 22 May 2015

why I deleted nearly all my blog posts

I started this blog in 2011 although on first glance, it looks a lot newer, because of the decision I made to delete most of my old posts.

I had moments where I wondered what the hell I was doing. I had moments where I felt I was making a huge mistake. But also, it felt exhilarating, it felt freeing. I was making lots of small changes, but I needed to do something huge. One part of my life was changing and I needed to change something else, because I wanted life to feel different, to feel new. I couldn't change where I live, at least not without a lot of faff, because I'd have to sell my house (plus I LOVE my house). I couldn't get a new job because there are so few jobs available here. I couldn't give up my friends and family I couldn't change my hair or image because that's just not something I care about enough to be bothered with. Plus some of these would be just too big an upheaval, too long, too slow. I needed something I could change now. So the blog came into the firing line.

Its not that I didn't love my blog before, but I wanted it to reflect me as I am now, and my old posts, my old life, didn't do that. I could have archived them, I could have started a new blog, but I didn't want that either. I wanted the feeling of deleting the past and starting afresh. Yes. I've kept a couple of my favourite posts that I'll reblog because I like them, but all the rest is gone.

So what's changed? I wrote a list of the things I love to write about, things I love to read about.

Writing. Finances. Thriftiness. Creating. Crafting. Mindfulness. The environment. Reading. Health. Nutrition. Wellbeing. Self improvement. Daily life.

These are the things that interest me, so this is the direction I headed. I want my blog to be about the stuff I'm passionate about, so its a lot less random than before. I still don't take it seriously enough to call myself a 'blogger' at the moment, but I take it seriously enough to devote more thought to it. My strapline is 'Living Better, Creating More, Spending Less,' and is also my mission statement. I wrote about these things before, but I wanted to put more heart into it. I used to read blogs about these topics and wish I was better at writing about them, wish I could do it. And I can. So here it is.

I understand if its not to everyone's taste though, and I'm eternally grateful to everyone who's stuck around up until this point. I've lost regular readers and I get less page views and comments, but I'm fine with that. I'm blogging from the heart, and I'm happy with what I write. It's early days yet but I have so many ideas and so many things I want to try. The point is, its a creative outlet for me, and if I can help or inspire just one single person with one of my posts, I've achieved what I set out to do.

Could you delete your entire blog? Are there any of the topics about that you'd like to see me write more about?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

tuesday truths - fear of our own success

This is part of a series in which I blog about my own issues in life and how I'm in the process of overcoming them

I won a national short story competition at the end of last year. How exciting! Did I tweet about it, blog about it, text my friends, phone my parents, shout it from the rooftops?

I told absolutely no one. Not a person

I did mention I'd 'won a prize' to my parents and boyfriend but I downplayed it as 'nothing major' and they thought no more of it. Yet every time I've been shortlisted, or come as a runner up, I've nearly burst with excitement. Not this time though. This time it was just too big, too scary, too real, to share.
For years I've entered competitions with, of course, the intention of winning. But when I actually won it was like hitting a brick wall. A mental, emotional and creative brick wall. What now? I had written a story that other people loved. I was a winner! It almost felt like an insult to the other entrants not to shout about it. But I couldn't.

My reaction was not what I would have expected, but I understand why I behaved like this. The age old problem of not really believing I'm good enough played a small part, but I can short circuit this belief. I liked the story. I believed it deserved to do well and I had every right to be proud. No, the issue wasn't that I didn't deserve it, the issue was that I couldn't handle the fear.

The fear that the bar had been set and that people now had expectations of me

The fear that I had reached my pinnacle and that nothing else would ever measure up

This could my defining moment, and it would only be downhill from now on. What if I could never write another story as good or as successful? What was the point in me even trying? What would people expect of me? Were there jealous-type folk who were now waiting for me to fail? Would those who wished me success make me feel like I was now under some sort of pressure to perform?

Of course, none of those issues are 'real.' The only person waiting for me to fail is me. The only person putting me under pressure to perform is me. The only person who expects anything from me is me. It's always easier to assume that the pressures come from other people though. As for having reached my 'defining moment', who knows? I wanted to win a competition. And I did. Now, I keep trying, to see if I can win another.

A couple of weeks ago, a local reporter called. Cue a large article and photo in the local paper. Cue texts and emails from colleague, friends and family. Cue people I know coming over to me in the street and congratulating me. Not much else goes on up here, I might add, and I felt like a minor celebrity for a couple of days. And to my surprise, I didn't feel like a fraud, I didn't feel under any pressure. I accepted their kind words, told them that yes, I'm working on other stories and projects and no, I'm not at the stage of making millions from my writing. The fear of my own success hadn't gone, but it had lessened, as I came to terms with the fact that other people don't have expectations of me. At least not that this stage, and even if they did its my own expectations of myself that matters.

I will write more stories. More good stories. I have achieved a dream and I need to let myself celebrate it, then move on. I don't stop writing when a story is turned down for a magazine or doesn't get shortlisted. I dust myself off and keep going. So why on earth would I let a success paralyse me? I still don't feel comfortable shouting about it, but that doesn't matter. All I can do is keep writing and keep trying.

How do you cope with success? Do you have fears?

Saturday, 16 May 2015

things i'm loving right now

Earl Grey Tea. Not had this in years and had forgotten I loved it until I inadvertently had some the other day. So this is currently my favourite drink. And yes, I break Tea Law and I drink it with milk.

Short story course. I had stopped writing for a bit, and thought, what better way to get back into the swing of things, than with an entire course devoted to it! I'm doing a course via Writers Online/Writing Magazine, and as much as I often think I already know it all, I've picked up loads of useful tips already.

Knitting a cardigan. I bought some lovely yarn from Hobbycraft just before Christmas and decided on a cardigan. I'm slightly regretting it as the wool is thin so its taking foreeeeeeeever, but once I get the back done, it should come together quickly as its short sleeved and low necked so the remaining two front sections shouldn't take long! I also have 2 balls of the same yarn in blue, thinking I may make wrist warmers next.

Crocheting the never-ending cushion cover. I've blogged about this before. I already made a large square for one side of the cover but then decided I didn't like it. I left it for a bit, worked on some other projects, then went back to it and decided that no, I don't like it. So I took it apart and started again. Its coming together a lot nicer this time and I'm pleased with it so far.

Duolingo App. I've wanted to learn a new language for a while, and I love this app. You can choose from various languages - I've gone for German - and it only takes ten minutes minimum per day. Not sure whether it will ever see me fluent in German but its fun to do and its definitely improved my skills.

Cliff top walks. I love the light evenings and have been making the most of them by walking along the cliffs and beach near my house nearly ever single evening. I can never, ever get enough of being near the sea, so this has more or less become a habit for me.

Cut tulips. Tulips are possibly my favourite flowers, so now that the garden ones are starting to wilt and disappear for another year, I'm compensating with some bright, shop bought tulips. (Gardening tip - if you have tulips in your garden, don't cut back the dying foliage - the bulb needs it to make food for next year).

Lambs. Still loads of them in the fields! I pass some on my nightly cliff walk and its lovely to watch them growing (no, I don't think about their inevitable end). I'm gutted I didn't get photos of the tiny lambs wearing rain jackets in the field near my work - who'd have thought lambs could get even cuter!

Meditation group. My mindfulness class has finished but a couple of us have started a weekly meditation group; we meditate for 20 minutes then have a cup of tea and a chat. Its a lovely chance to keep in touch with the people from the class and compare stories and experiences.

What's good in your life right now?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

how mindfulness has changed my life

Some Mindfulness teachers say you shouldn't talk about your practice because its something other people need to find out for themselves; they'll come to you if they want advice. So I try not to bang on about it too much (although I do love to talk about it!). However I was delighted to see that this this years Mental Health Awareness Week topic is Mindfulness. I've taken three courses in Mindfulness - two in real life, one online - so its something that I've learned a lot about, and something that I practice every day.

Firstly, although I've never suffered from mental health problems, I totally advocate mindfulness as a way of life, and I believe beyond all doubt that it can help with mental health conditions. I am naturally a list maker, a worrier and a Busy Person. I was always a few steps ahead of myself - I would have lists of what needed to be done each day and by hell I would fit it all in; I would worry about things I had said or that had happened in the past, about what might happen to me in the future. I would worry about my own death, about family member's deaths. I would interrupt people so I could get my point across, I would keep working if colleagues came into my office because I had no time to stop and listen to them, I rarely saw my family and friends because I had no time to see them. Yet so much of my time was empty - most of it was spent planning for and worrying about things that didn't matter or might never happen.

I took my first Mindfulness course because I wanted to slow down. I wanted life to stop passing me by.

Think its all new age hokum? Nope, it's actually been proven to work in the brain. When you're stressed, the part of your brain known as the amygdala is activated, When you're mindful though, and focussing on your senses, this activates a part called the insula. Both parts cannot be active at the same time, so when you activate the insula, the amygdala calms down, as does your stress levels.

There's an assumption that you need to meditate to be mindful. Not true. Meditation is a great habit in itself and it definitely helps, but being mindful is simply paying attention to the present moment. Stop for a minute. Pay attention to the feeling of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Don't try to shape the breath, or judge it. Just observe. Consider what emotion you're feeling, what you're thinking about, the taste of any food in your mouth, the feel of your clothes against your skin, of your backside on the chair, of the sounds you hear. That's being mindful. It allows us to step away from the hectic, fast paced lives our minds have created, and get in touch with what's happening around and within us. It isn't about fixing or changing anything, its simply about accepting that moment as it is. And it isn't about changing or stopping your thoughts, its about noticing them and just letting them pass. As soon as you think, 'oh, I'm having that thought about how I'm going to be so stressed at work tomorrow,' you've acknowledged the thought, and it will disappear without you having to force it out of your head.

And tying in with the theme of the week, here's how Mindfulness has helped me, and how it could help you too.

I experience things I previously took for granted
I notice small details more, like how things feel, taste and smell. I appreciate tiny moments, like hearing the sea from my bedroom window, and seeing red tulip heads poke through the fence from next door. Things I would never have noticed before because I'd be too busy thinking about stuff, yet often they're small things that make me smile. I slow down and take more time to appreciate each moment. Before, I would gulp down a mug of tea then move onto the next thing whereas now I sit down (outside when I can) and I make the time to enjoy it. Even just one small habit like that, would make a difference to anyone.

I'm more aware of my thoughts
I see how my thoughts create my reality. I identify the loops and patterns I get caught up in, and ask myself whether this thinking is helping solve the problem or not. Often its not. And its a revelation when you realise that Every. Single. Problem you ever have, relates to your thoughts about it and not to the incident/person/thing itself. Obviously there will always be negative thoughts, but even just being aware of whats caused them and not getting caught up in them is immensely helpful.

When an emotion overwhelms me, its of that time and place
This ties in with the point above, because emotions and thoughts are so intrinsically linked. But rather than just 'be in a bad mood', I find it easier now to pinpoint what caused the mood, why I'm in it, and just acknowledge that's how I'm feeling right now. I'm not judgmental of my moods; if I'm grumpy, I'm grumpy! But just accepting them rather than trying to fight them and pretend I'm positive when I'm not, is much more effective - the moods don't last as long and they don't get out of control.

I have more patience
I have always a short fuse (thanks, Dad) and it never took much for me to lose my temper. Especially when it comes to technology and fiddly stuff. But this is possibly the area I've seen the most improvement. I hardly lose it now at all. Instead, I slow down, breathe and concentrate on what I'm doing. Or walk away for five minutes if need be. I am not perfect so there are occasions when things get to me but on the whole, I wouldn't even describe myself as impatient any more.

I'm more present when people talk to me
Not that I would rudely ignore people, but often I'd be preoccupied thinking about something I need to do later, or something I need to remember, or something that happened earlier. I stress less about the future and I'm less inclined to go over the past, which means I can be fully present and have a decent conversation with someone. As such, I've had much nicer interactions with people and the conversations flow smoother, which as a shy introvert, makes life much easier

I keep things in perspective
Just because one bad thing has happened, it doesn't mean my whole day is ruined. And just because one area of my life is falling apart, it doesn't mean my entire life is about to disintegrate. Bad and good things happen all the time, to all people. And it means I'm better at letting things go. This is something I've really had to work at, and something I'm still working at, but I'm a lot better at accepting what's happened, and moving on.

I'm more sure of who I am
I can't really explain this one, as its a bit abstract, but I just feel more like the person I should be. I have more self-confidence within myself and my self-esteem has definitely improved. I'm more likely to do what I want to do rather than worry about what people think. This is who I am, and as long as I'm happy with myself, that's all that matters.

I'm more inclined to just get on with stuff, yet less stressed about what needs to be done
My worrying and list-making would frequently leave me stressed, burned out and incapable of anything at all. Now, I've ditched my to-do lists completely. I never write any (unless its relating to a specific project, like my novel). I just do stuff. And a lot more gets done. Annoying jobs, like the recycling, or a light bulb that needs changed, get done swiftly, rather than when it gets to the needs must stage. And I'm a lot more focused on doing one task at a time. One browser page open. One work task at a time. Things take no longer than they did, but much more gets done and my stress levels are lower than ever. A win all round.

I'm calm
Much calmer. I smile more and think less. I talk slower, I walk slower, I'm not always thinking ahead. I think before I speak. I go with the flow, I do what needs to be done. I plan ahead, but not to the point of military precision. So what if I don't do any short story writing tonight? I can do a bit extra tomorrow. So what if I don't clean the bathroom today, even though today is Bathroom Cleaning Day? The dirty bathroom will still be there tomorrow. So what if I have a ton of work stuff to do? I can only do one thing at a time, so lets start with one task and see how it goes.

I could write a longer list that this. I could go on, and on, and on.  I guess this isn't for everyone; some people are laid back and seem to be naturally mindful. I am not. And if you're not, try it and I guarantee you'll notice a difference. Not straight away; and indeed you'll need to force yourself to be mindful at first. But then, you'll find you do it out of habit, and eventually you'll realise you're changing. For the better.

Are you 'mindful'? Do you think you could benefit from it?

Monday, 11 May 2015

if your partner has depression - 10 ways to help them and yourself

source - furrytalk

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. This year's theme is Mindfulness, which I'll write about later in the week, but today I wanted to write about something else.

Living with a depressed partner is without doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

It's even harder than dealing with a partner with a physical illness. Not that its easy for him either but as the partner you're the first to be rejected, the first to face mood swings, the one who has to hold everything else together. 

Below is what I've learned - how to help yourself and your partner (or whoever it is you care for). All of these tips come from bitter experience and none of it is easy, but they are key things to bear in mind when you feel your entire life has been swamped by this selfish, nasty, unforgiving illness that can be as much of a killer as any physical disease.

Remember, its not personal
Easy to say but hard to remember when the person you love barely speaks to you and flinches when you try to hug them, not to mention the fact that not only have they withdrawn all affection and interaction, they now expect you to be at their beck and call and manage the entire household yourself. They can't help it. They don't want to be like this and they are not doing it on purpose. It is not about you. The person you love is still there, albeit shrouded in a black cloud that they can't see through. They are not the enemy. The depression is.

Be supportive...but choose your words carefully
It is soooo tempting to tell them to snap out of it, to get a grip, to tell them to look at how good their life is, how they have no reason to be depressed. Depression does not need a reason. Support and encouragement is important though; reminders that you love them even if they can't currently express that love back to you, are important because they need to know someone cares. They may well seem ungrateful or unresponsive, but as stated above, that's the illness. It isn't them. They might not tell you want they want or need, as they may feel too worthless to ask for help, so be vigilant.

Encourage them to talk to their GP
If they aren't diagnosed but you believe they're depressed, its absolutely vital that they see a doctor. This isn't a 'low mood', it isn't something that will go away on its own, and there's a high chance you'll notice it before they do. Encourage them to talk to you about how they're feeling but don't force it because sometimes they just won't want to talk. Remind them you're a partnership and that this is something you can face, and learn about, together. They may be more willing to talk to a GP or Counsellor about it than to you. Again, don't take it personally. Sometimes its easier to talk to a stranger about these things, and if its helping their recovery, it can only be a good thing. It goes without saying that if they mention suicide or harming themselves, don't take this as an empty threat. Contact your GP, NHS 24 or call 999. 

Stay on track with your own life
They might not want to leave the house, eat well or see people. But it doesn't mean you can't do these things, and its imperative that you do. Spend time with others, but equally spend time alone. Eat well and regularly. Go out for a walk. Go out for a cup of coffee. Meet your friends. You'll probably feel bad leaving your partner to wallow at home, but if you're not in good mental and physical health, you can't support them in the way they need you to. So make sure your own needs are met. Looking after someone with depression can be very isolating so its important that you keep up that connection to the outside world. Local carer's groups can be a great support aswell. 

Set clear limits
They won't always have control over their actions or moods, but they are still responsible for their behaviour, so don't feel you have to tolerate everything they throw at you. For example I refused to tolerate him swearing at me or blaming me. He was just lashing out in frustration but I clearly told him that any time he did that, I would walk away. I also wouldn't tolerate him spending 24 hours in front of the television, and I wouldn't tolerate shouldering all the housework. I gave him small tasks he could do. Set your limits early on, and don't be swayed. 

Acknowledge your own negative feelings
I can guarantee you will feel angry, resentful, helpless, frustrated, guilty, rejected, and many more. On a regular basis. But don't take your feelings out on your partner. Write them down, cry, go for a run, punch a pillow, talk to a Counsellor. But there's nothing wrong with clearly telling your partner how you feel, for example, 'I'm feeling quite frustrated today so I'm going out for a walk.' You're entitled to these feelings and you need to let yourself feel them.

Talk to someone
I've already touched on this above, but I can't stress how important this is. You absolutely need to talk to people about this. A GP, Counsellor, trusted friend or family member, online group, the Samaritans, someone who's been through it (feel absolutely free to email me if need be - I'm no doctor but I can completely relate to how you feel and will help as much as I can). Once I had told my Mum and best friend what was going on, it was like a weight had been lifted. I was no longer alone. You need support. Go and find it.

Go easy on yourself and them
You will lose your temper with them. You will cry in front of them. But these are natural reactions and there will be times where you will be less than perfect because guess what, that's life. And there will be times where you will expect something of them and they won't do it. They may promise to come out a walk tomorrow, but when tomorrow arrives they change their mind. It happens. Perhaps they feel worse today that they did yesterday. There will be times where you feel you're getting nowhere, going backwards, losing your grip or not being supportive. Accept those moments for what they are and let them pass. You're going through a seriously hard time here so don't put too much pressure on yourself.

Accept things have changed
Depression can affect people and relationships in the long term - sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in a negative way. They may never be completely the same person again, and there's always the possibility that the illness will recur. It might also spell the end of your relationship, depending on how both of you feel. Be realistic about these things. Don't resist change, go with it and see where it takes you both.

Remember, it isn't your fault
None of this is your fault and never feel ashamed of what has happened. It's horrible, but you will get through it one way or another. You absolutely will. Trust me on that.

Have you ever been affected by depression, either as a victim or as a carer? Do you have any tips to add?

Saturday, 9 May 2015

a spring adventure in the big forest

**Originally blogged on 8th May 2014, this is a blog post that survived the cull, because it was such a special, lovely day that brought back many childhood memories**

When I was a child, the trees and grassy area behind our house was a wonder to me. Myself, my sister and our two friends next door called it 'the big forest' and it was like Narnia to us. A woodland world beyond a locked gate. In reality, the 'big forest' did have a suitably fairy tale past; it was the servant's entrance to Thurso Castle, which is now a ruin. (Incidentally, there's a small stone shed in my parent's garden that we used as a playhouse, which was once an office for the castle. Also, the previous owners of the house kept goats in it. I'm not sure which of those two stories is cooler).

Despite the locked gate, we got in there many times, and much of our childhood summers were spent in there. There were many escapades, often involving livestock, as the Big Forest was occasionally used to keep cows or sheep in. Sometimes Big Boys would turn up and attempt to build tree-houses which we would then claim squatters rights on, but mostly we had the whole place to ourselves and we made up countless games and adventures. We were barely a minute from our back garden but it felt like we were in another world.

It had been years - going on twenty years - since I had last been in the Big Forest, so on a sunny Sunday in April I roped my boyfriend into taking a walk with me, under the guise of collecting sticks for our compost bin. I felt like we were Hansel and Gretel; me with my pack for collecting wood, and him arsing about with giant boughs that were clearly never going to fit in the compost bin, even if he could drag them back.

I wondered how it would be after all those years, now that I'm a grown adult and I know that fairy wonderlands don't exist. But you know what? It was a magical as ever.

It was a beautiful, hazy day with bumble bees bouncing from dandelion to dandelion, and the rubbery sycamore leaves were just starting to poke through. The trees were full of songbirds but it we listened carefully we could hear the sea crashing against the shore, just beyond the the large wall along the left hand side. That same wall has a small watchtower which I was delighted to see we could still access.

Just before the tower, the trees thin out, and beyond it, someone had recently been cutting the grass. Leaving Adam to try and haul out a giant branch, I ventured up to the entrance to the castle gardens. Although the castle itself is ruined, the gardens are maintained as the current Viscountess lives in a house attached to it. The lawn mower was sitting in the garden so I didn't venture any further although I managed to get a couple of sneaky photographs. It felt so illicit, and I felt so fearless; I swear in that moment I could have been ten again. I then turned and ran - actually ran, it was so exhilarating - back to where Adam was, and where I'd left the bag of branches. He barely noticed I'd gone, so I felt like I'd been on a mini-adventure of my own.

I intend to go back some time in the hope that there's no lawn mowers about and I can get a proper look in the castle gardens. We rarely ventured up that far when we were children, for fear of being told off. I'd also love to go inside the castle but I suspect its well beyond that stage. The Big Forest was as much fun as it had ever been, and I was delighted that it still had that fairy tale feel. This afternoon was the best day I'd had in ages; we were barely in there half an hour but it felt like hours had gone by. Just like it felt in my childhood. This was a great reminder to me to slow down and enjoy life. There's a lot to be said for rediscovering your youth sometimes.